Selected laws of Aethelbert of Kent, 601-604

The laws of King Æthelbert of Kent are the first surviving example we have of Anglo Saxon law codes. Why Ælthebert? The king was the first Anglo Saxon king to convert to Christianity, heavily influenced by his Frankish wife Bertha. This brought also the use of the Church to him – one of whose talents was literacy. Since the Church was also keen to write down the grants of land given them, they were keen to help establish a written legal code. 

Selected Laws of Aethelbert of Kent (601-604)

These are the laws that King Aethelbert established in the days of Augustine

1      [One who steals] the property of God and the church [shall pay] twelvefold compensation; the         property of a bishop, elevenfold; the property of a priest, ninefold; the property of a deacon,         sixfold; the property of a [lesser] clergyman, threefold. [He who breaks] the peace of the         church [shall pay] double compensation; the peace of a public assembly, double compensation.

[Compensation was usually paid to the victim or the family; whereas a fine, or wite, was paid to the king or his agents.]

2     If the king summons his people to him, and if any one there does them wrong, he shall pay         double compensation to the injured person and 50s to the king.

[The Kentish shilling was reckoned at 20 times the value of a silver penny]

3     If the king is drinking in a man’s house, and if any one commits any kind of misdeed there, he         shall pay double compensation to the householder.

4     If a freeman steals from the king, he shall pay ninefold compensation.

5     If a man slays another in a villa of the king, he shall pay 50s. compensation [to the king]

[The word used is tun, which of course is where the word for town is derived. At this point, though, it’s really meaning a royal estate or agricultural village.]

8     The king’s mundbyrd is 50s.

[Munbyrd is the king’s protection or peace]

9     If a freeman steals from a freeman, he shall pay threefold compensation [to the latter], and         the king shall have the fine (wite) and all the goods [of the thief]. . . .

13   If a man slays another in a villa of a nobleman (eon), he shall pay 12s. compensation [to the         nobleman]. . . .

15   The mundbyrd of a ceorl is 6s. . . .

17   If a man leads the way in breaking into some one’s villa, he shall pay 6s. compensation; the one         who next breaks in 3s.; and every one after that 1s.

21.  If a man slays another, he shall pay as compensation [to the kindred] the ordinary wergeld of         100s. . . .

24. If anyone binds a freeman, he shall pay [him] 100s compensation

27. If a freeman commits hedge-breaking, he shall pay 6s. compensation.

[Hedge breaking in this context means breaking into a man’s property surrounded by a hedge]

28. If the man takes any property from inside, he shall pay three­fold compensation

[After this in the laws there is a long list of compensations for minor injuries. So for example, if you neighbor took your fingernail off, you’d get a shilling. Almost worth it, actually…]

2 thoughts on “Selected laws of Aethelbert of Kent, 601-604

  1. what do they mean by ‘bind’ a freeman?
    interesting reading for the history buff and those who are doing research into our fundamental constitution.

  2. I confess I am shooting the from the hip; but I always assumed that it meant where a lord imposed fines and dues suitable for a serf rather than freeman. But I admit I could be wrong; could be a physical thing I guess?

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